01:49 GMT20 June 2021
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    The US Air Force has been mum about its X-37B programme, drawing the increased attention of the amateur satellite community. The X-37B mini-shuttle is currently conducting its fifth mission, and its planned duration in orbit is still unknown.

    An amateur Dutch astronomer has finally photographed the US Air Force’s mysterious robotic space plane, the Boeing X-37B, after a months-long hunt.

    Ralf Vandebergh, who regularly takes close-up pictures of spacecraft in the Earth’s orbit, said he observed the elusive X-37B on one of its missions.

    He said he first saw the space plane in May and then tried to capture it in mid-June, but the X-37B appeared to have escaped his sight after changing its orbit.

    “Thanks to the amateur satellite observers-network, it was rapidly found in orbit again and I was able to take some images on June 30 and July 2,” the skywatcher wrote, saying that on the most recent occasion, the spacecraft was almost overhead.

    The X-37B – otherwise known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) – looks like a mini-space shuttle, so the image did not show it in great detail. “Nevertheless, the images succeeded beyond expectations and show even a sign of the nose/payload bay/tail or even more,” Vandebergh said.

    “Considering this, the attached images succeeded beyond expectations. We can recognise a bit of the nose, Payload Bay and tail of this mini-shuttle with even a sign of some smaller detail.”

    But why are some so enthusiastic about spotting a spacecraft?

    The point is the US military has been pretty secretive about the mission.

    The X-37B OTV is a reusable unmanned space test vehicle. Its first test flight took place in April 2010.

    The space plane has been circling the Earth in obscurity for over 20 months on what became the fifth flight of the programme – and its longest mission so far.

    When the OTV-5 took off in September 2017 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the only payload that the US Air Force revealed was the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes.

    But the mission, which is overseen by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at the Schriever Air Force Base, has sparked suspicion among some critics that the spacecraft’s payload could be involved in intelligence-gathering.

    It was detected in orbit for the first time only in 2018, and its planned flight duration is still unknown. Space enthusiasts have speculated that the sixth flight, X-37B OTV-6, could lift off in 2019 again on an Atlas V rocket.

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